This lesson relates to the westward movement in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Students analyze the role that gunfighters played in the settlement of the West and distinguish between their factual and fictional accounts using American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936 - 1940.
Billy the Kid alias, William H. Bonney, alias Henry McCarty, alias Kid Antrim, etc. is an example of the typical gunfighter. He was born in the 1850s and died in 1881 when he was shot by Sheriff Pat Garrett. Billy serves as the focus of the lesson.
After completing this unit students will be able to:
- develop techniques to analyze primary sources;
- become aware of effective interview techniques;
- assess the significance of the contributions of the gunfighter to the settlement of the West; and
- become familiar with the American Memory collections and learn how to use them effectively when doing historical research.
Step 1: Finding the Real Billy the Kid
Provide students with a brief summary of the historical time period from the 1870s to the 1890s, using online or other resources.
Analysis of two descriptions of Billy the Kid
Use the following passages as examples of the difficulties that historians face when they are trying to determine what really happened when the West was settled. Which of the following passages "captures" the real "Billy the Kid"? Why?
"One of Billy the Kid's guards - Ollinger - was eating dinner at Mr. Thornton's hotel when he heard the "Kid's" shot that killed Bell, the other guard. On running from the dining room Ollinger, at a call from Billy the Kid looked up and received a volley of shots from his own gun that he had left leaning against the wall at the jail. With both guards killed within two or three minutes' time Billy the Kid ordered his shackles sawed off by the jailer, mounted a horse and made his sensational escape." J.Y. Thornton
"I remember good times I had with Billy the Kid. He was not an outlaw in manners - was quiet, but good company always doing something interesting. That was why he had so many friends. We often raced horses together. He was not very large - weighed a hundred and twenty five or thirty pounds. He was a fine rider." Charles L. Ballard
Step 2: Introduction to American Memory
- Arrange access to Internet-enabled computers.
- Have students find American Memory.
- Explain the organization of American Memory and have students search various collections such as:
- Students should then be directed to American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940.
- Illustrate how to search and use the documents by modeling a search using words such as Billy the Kid, immigrants, Lincoln County, etc.
Step 3: Analyzing Primary Documents
- Have students find American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940 and do a search for Billy the Kid.
- Direct students to find the interview titled "Interview with Jose Garcia y Trujillo" or Dr. J.R. Carver. (or provide copies of the interviews if students do not have access to the Internet.)
- Assign students to read the interview. Students analyze the interview, recording their thoughts on the Primary Source Analysis Tool. Before the students begin, select questions from the teacher’s guide Analyzing Oral Histories to focus and prompt analysis and discussion.
- Review student answers with the class and note their ability to analyze historical documents.
- Interview one or more of the following people: college history professor, museum official, officials of a state/local historical society, high school U.S. history teachers, local writers, etc. and compare/contrast their impressions of Billy the Kid with the impressions of selected people who were interviewed for American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940.
- Compare/contrast other gunfighters with Billy the Kid by using interviews from the American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940. Students can compare/contrast: geographic locations, family background, expertise with weapons, key events in the lives of the gunfighters, personality traits, occupations, cause of death, historical significance, etc. For example, students can perform a word search for Wild Bill Hickok and examine the interviews with "Ed Granthan", F.J. Elliott" and "John Freeman". These interviews can be compared/contrasted with interviews related to Billy the Kid.
- A social studies teacher and an English/literature teacher can develop an interdisciplinary activity. The English teacher can discuss the mechanics of writing short stories, poems, etc. The social studies teacher could then have students write their own short story, dime store novel, poem, etc. about Billy the Kid. Possible resources: O. Henry's short story about Billy titled "The Caballero's Way"; dime store novels such as Frank Tousey's "The True Life of Billy the Kid", Edmund Fable Jr.'s "Billy the Kid, the New Mexican Outlaw"; Will Henry's "A Bullet for Billy the Kid", a short story contained in his collection titled Sons of the Western Frontier (1966), and Amelia Bean's novel, Time for Outrage (1967).
Assign students to write an analytical essay on the real Billy the Kid to include the facts and myths associated with him. A bibliography and documentation are required. Students must use a minimum of three interviews from the American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940. The primary accounts should be compared/contrasted with accounts from a secondary source.
Suggested primary sources:
American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936 - 1940
Do a search for Billy the Kid and read the following interviews:
Do a search for the Lincoln County War and then read the following interview:
Access this resource at:
Billy the Kid: Perspectives on an Outlaw
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